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Drones Suspected In Yemen Fighting



The U.S.-led air campaign against al-Qaida and its affiliates in places like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen has been called a shadow war. In the shadows because many of those airstrikes are carried out by unmanned drones. On Friday, an American drone killed at least 15 suspected Taliban militants in northwestern Pakistan. At least 50 airstrikes have been carried out in Yemen this year alone.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently gained access to the sites of some of those attacks in Yemen. She's back at our bureau in Beirut from where she joins us now. And, Kelly, first of all, how were you able to gain access to those places?

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: The place where we spent the most of our time was in southern Yemen in the province of Abyan. And for more than a year, this province has basically been under the control of an al-Qaida-linked organization called Ansar al-Sharia. In recent months, the Yemeni government backed by the United States has been on a real offensive against these militants, a ground offensive and, of course, an offensive from the air.

So I basically landed in Yemen on a Monday, the day that the Yemeni government announced they had retaken this province. And on a Tuesday, we got in the car and we drove there.

RAZ: What did you find when you got there?

MCEVERS: We found that, yes, while this U.S.-backed air campaign has been successful in routing these militants out, a lot of the militants pulled out of this region, retreated back to the mountains where they had been based before. What is also happening is that a lot more civilians are being killed than is originally reported.

RAZ: And what about the people that you encountered there in this area? Who do they blame?

MCEVERS: Well, you know, it depends on who you ask. That's actually a very complicated question. I mean, I think when I first went in, I went with the assumption thinking that everybody was going to be blaming the Americans, and it's actually different. I mean, some people say this is just fate. You know, Yemen is a violent country. It makes sense that there are bombs falling out of the sky. And these are even people who've, you know, who've lost their own relatives. And then other people are kind of nationalistic about it. It's a question of pride.

They're angry with their own government for letting the Americans come in and do these kinds of bombings. And then, still, other people look at it sort of from an economic point of view. You know, they're not all that upset when these strikes actually do kill militants. You know, they say, look, these were bad guys. We didn't want them living next door.

But what happens after the militants are killed, other militants come in and compensate people for their houses, for their cars, pay them money, try to sort of bring them into the fold. And they say, wait a second. Why isn't anybody doing that for us? And why isn't anybody doing that for the civilians?

RAZ: So just to clarify, these areas were once controlled by al-Qaida-linked militants. They are no longer controlled by them, but the militants are able to come back and compensate people in those areas.

MCEVERS: That's what they say. Like many things in Yemen, it's - things are not as clear-cut, as they say. You know, the government announced on that Monday that we've - we won, we control this area now. When we went in, it was definitely a little more complicated than that. You know, I think you had a lot of people who still sympathize with the group hanging around, and, yes, militants were able to access some of these areas.

I have to say one of the most chilling things that happened to me while I was there was we're walking around from drone or airstrike site, you know, from one to the other and a young boy looked at us and said, there are still militants here and they're still attacking us from the sky.

Right about then, a plane comes in low and flies right over our heads. It gave me pause. I looked up into the sky and I thought, huh, I wonder if I'm more worried about what my own government could do to me from the sky than I am about the people around me.

RAZ: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers. She joined us to talk about her recent reporting trip to towns in Yemen hit by what are believed to be unmanned drone strikes. Kelly, thanks so much.

MCEVERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.